A little over a year ago, when Amazon’s phony “search” for a site for a second “headquarters” was revealed to be a sham, I noted that for a rich tech giant the company seemed surprisingly tone-deaf. A billion-dollar giveaway to one of the world’s biggest corporations caused an outcry with the electorate and their representatives. As a result, the deal that Amazon negotiated for itself in New York City blew up, forcing the company to pay for office space with its own money rather than taxpayers’.
In the aftermath of that debacle, I wondered if the company might be chastened, or even apologetic. Instead, though, it has plowed ahead with the confidence of the god Maui in Moana — and the response to any criticism has been a smug “You’re Welcome.” The basic idea, borrowed from Steve Jobs-era Apple, is to cow any critics by referring loudly and constantly to the company’s successes.
The latest example of Amazons’s policymaking through self-congratulation comes from Jay Carney, the company’s public relations chief. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Carney reminisces about the time Sen. Bernie Sanders called him to praise Amazon raising its minimum wage to $15. (That’s an annual salary of $31,200; meanwhile, CEO Jeff Bezos made $4.1 billion selling Amazon stock in the past 11 days alone.)
The point of this reminiscence is to take credit for doing more than the absolute least that Amazon could do, while attempting to shift the pressure for improving worker conditions back onto members of Congress like Sanders:
We know $15 is not a lot. In fact, we believe $15 should be the minimum anyone in the United States is paid for an hour of labor, and in most areas of the country our starting wage is even higher. But while the debate about Amazon’s impact at times focuses on how our hourly jobs compare to jobs of the past, or to an idealized vision of the future, the truth is that more than 40 million Americans earn less than the lowest-paid Amazon associate. For many people, a job at one of our fulfillment centers is by far the best option available in their region. And we are proud of that — even as we agree that our political and business leaders must work together to create more and better options for all America’s workers.
One place to start: Raise the federal minimum wage to $15 from its current rate of $7.25 — something only members of Congress like Senator Sanders can do. If Congress were to follow our lead, all it would take to greatly improve the lives of America’s lowest-paid workers is the president’s signature.
It’s certainly a good thing that Amazon pays more than the federal minimum wage. And it’s also a good thing that Amazon creates lots of jobs, even if it’s able to create so many jobs in part because it excels at crushing competition. (Diapers.com might have hired a lot of people, and continued to exist, had Amazon not dropped prices by 30 percent in an effort to drive it out of business.)
But there are at least two big issues that Carney glosses over while patting his company on the back. The first is that many of the jobs that Amazon creates come with brutal working conditions. Whether it’s the back-breaking work in fulfillment centers, where workers are seriously injured at four times the industry average, or white-collar work at headquarters, where a 2015 investigation found that employees were constantly found crying at their desks, Amazon has a lot to answer for. (Carney responded to the latter case with a legendarily peevish Medium post in which he denigrated several former employees by name, attacked the integrity of the reporters who wrote it, and said almost nothing in defense of what he called the company’s “demanding culture.”)
The second big issue glossed over in Carney’s op-ed is that all those jobs the company is creating can come with terrible externalities. For example, BuzzFeed last year connected Amazons’ relentless push for faster deliveries to hundreds of delivery vehicle accidents, resulting in at least six fatalities. When BuzzFeed’s reporters pointed this out on Twitter, Carney was characteristically dismissive:
Compare our jobs to the alternatives. Find an alternative – not imaginary – that provides the pay and benefits we provide. And, if you want to be a political advocate and not a reporter, I applaud that. I did both. But don’t pretend you’re one when you’re really the other.
— Jay Carney (@JayCarney) February 10, 2020
Not wanting people to get run over Amazon delivery vehicles does not, in my opinion, make you a “political advocate.” Nor does writing about the phenomenon strike me as being outside the bounds of good journalism. In truth there’s very little daylight between this kind of lazy, pouty everyone’s-out-to-get-us media criticism and the president’s daily torrent of fake news / witch hunt verbal diarrhea. Some of which is aimed at … Jeff Bezos, in his capacity as owner of the Washington Post.
In both his private actions and his public comments, Bezos has been a strong supporter of a free and independent press. Which makes it all the stranger that his chief attack dog for nearly five years has been so dismissive of one. Even more so because the primary effect of that attitude has been to build enormous and consequential blind spots.
Perhaps Amazon will learn that lesson eventually. In the meantime it’s striking that Bezos has been so much more effective at managing the story around his colorful personal life — a story that has recently involved divorce, blackmail, and a WhatsApp-based attack by the the crown prince of Saudi Arabia — than he has been at managing the story about Amazon’s day-to-day business practices. Then again, it’s always easier to play the victim when you actually are one.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Google announced a new initiative to give federal campaigns access to free Titan Security Keys, a strong form of two-factor authentication. The move is part of the company’s broader effort to increase election security.
Trending up: Snapchat is launching a new set of tools and custom content around mental health and wellness. One tool includes a search function that surfaces health and wellness resources on topics including depression, suicide and anxiety.
⭐ The Federal Trade Commission announced that it will begin reviewing past acquisitions made by big tech companies, including Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft. If the FTC finds evidence of anticompetitive activity in past mergers, it could prompt the agency to take enforcement action. (This inquiry won’t look at Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram or WhatsApp, though — the FTC approved those.) The Verge’s Makena Kelly reports:
In orders issued to the companies, the FTC said that it was seeking “information and documents on the terms, scope, structure, and purpose of” small and unreported transactions made between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2019. The commission’s study will focus on quiet acquisitions and acqui-hires, not large deals like Facebook’s purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp.
⭐ The CIA secretly bought a company called Crypto AG that sold encryption devices across the world. Then it rigged those devices so it could easily listen in on encrypted messages. Here’s Greg Miller at The Washington Post with an all-time holy-wow of an investigation:
“It was the intelligence coup of the century,” the CIA report concludes. “Foreign governments were paying good money to the U.S. and West Germany for the privilege of having their most secret communications read by at least two (and possibly as many as five or six) foreign countries.”
⭐ US officials say Huawei can covertly access mobile-phone networks around the world through “back doors” designed to be used by law enforcement. The news comes as the Trump administration ramps up its push for US allies to block the Chinese company. Bojan Pancevski at The Wall Street Journal has the story, which will be cited every single time lawmakers call for the installation of a “backdoor” in encryption technology from now until the end of time.
“We have evidence that Huawei has the capability secretly to access sensitive and personal information in systems it maintains and sells around the world,” said national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
“Huawei does not disclose this covert access to its local customers, or the host nation national-security agencies,” another senior U.S. official said.
Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, the leading presidential candidates, are calling each other out in Facebook ads aimed at driving last-minute donations ahead of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary. The increasingly personal ads mirror the infighting among Democrats following the razor-close finish in Iowa. (Cat Zakrzewski / The Washington Post)
Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign is asking tech leaders to refer their most talented colleagues and friends to his massive election operation in New York. The request stands in contrast to Bloomberg’s Democratic rivals, who have been actively criticizing Big Tech. (Theodore Schleifer / Recode)
Roughly a dozen law enforcement agencies in Florida have tried or bought access to Clearview AI’s facial recognition app. Privacy experts warn the app could allow police officers to identify anyone on the street, deterring political rallies or even people going about their daily lives. (Allison Ross, Malena Carollo and Kathryn Varn / Tampa Bay Times)
A profile of Sarah Miller, a Treasury Department aide turned antitrust activist who wants to reshape the American economy by targeting big companies in industries from tech to agriculture and medicine. (David McCabe / The New York Times)
The European Union backed away from plans to call for a five-year moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology in public spaces. It’s leaving the responsibility of choosing to impose a ban to member states, despite concerns from privacy groups that the technology will harm civil liberties. (Javier Espinoza and Madhumita Murgia / Financial Times)
An apparent glitch prevented Facebook users in Myanmar from posting in the Jinghpaw language, used by the country’s Kachin population. The bug spread fears of censorship and oppression among the already embattled group. (Emily Fishbein / The Verge)
⭐ Apple’s built-in voice assistant Siri can now answer questions about the election. The feature is part of Apple News’ 2020 election coverage, which also includes curated news, resources and data. Here’s Sarah Perez at TechCrunch:
For example, you may ask Siri something like “When are the California primaries?,” which is a more straightforward question, or “Who’s winning the New Hampshire primaries?,” which requires updated information.
Siri will speak the answers to the question in addition to presenting the information visually, which makes the feature useful from an accessibility standpoint, too.
Google’s head of human resources, Eileen Naughton, is stepping down later this year amid rising tensions between the company’s top executives and employees. Naughton has been dealing with intensifying employee anger over the company’s alleged handling of sexual harassment claims and the firing of employees who organized protests. (Danielle Abril / Fortune)
Alphabet moved Jigsaw, a technology incubator that creates tools to curb online misinformation, harassment and other issues, under Google. It’s the third Alphabet subsidiary over the past two years to be shifted to Google. (Nick Bastone / The Information)
Google is testing out adding free direct links to competitor websites above its own featured hotel, vacation rental and flight options in Europe. The move is likely an attempt to appease regulators, who have been calling for a crackdown on the search giant. (Dennis Schaal / Skift)
Students at the online coding bootcamp Lambda School say the program hasn’t always delivered on its promise. These programs are a key way to increase diversity in tech, but they only work if the curriculum properly prepares people for a job. (Zoe Schiffer and Megan Farokhmanesh / The Verge)
The Young Turks, one of the largest progressive news channels on YouTube, is receiving funding from YouTube to launch an online course called TYT Academy that will focus on creating digital local news. The investment is part of Google’s $300 million news initiative announced in 2018. (Axios)
The popular Edison email app, one of the top productivity apps in the App Store, scrapes users’ email inboxes and sells products based off that information to clients in the finance, travel, and e-Commerce industries. Some companies, like JP Morgan, buy the data to make better investment decisions. Some companies actually do sell data! (Joseph Cox / Vice)
Here are 10 ways TikTok will change product design, according to a former top executive at Facebook. (Sam Lessin / The Information)
And here is the first known “why I deleted my TikTok” essay. An important rite of passage for any social app, from a student at Cornell.
Companies including Intel, AT&T, Cisco and Sprint are canceling plans to attend the wireless industry’s biggest annual event in response to the coronavirus. Mobile World Congress, held each year in Barcelona, is apparently still going to happen, although attendees will need to prove they haven’t set foot in mainland China in the two weeks prior to showing up. (Thomas Seal and Rodrigo Orihuela / Bloomberg)